Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Say "Bah, Humbug" to Exploitive Presents

This is about as christmasie as I can get...originally published at Straight Goods in 2007.

Make sure that what you buy was fairly made and fairly traded.

Surveys consistently suggest that Canadians are willing to pay higher prices for goods they know are produced fairly — a fair price being paid for goods produced in a sustainable fashion by workers paid a living wage in safe conditions. Except, maybe, at this time of year.

The holidays are supposed to make us all feel warm and fuzzy... about moving lots of money from our pockets into retailers' cash registers. Advertisers, retailers and major manufacturers count on sentimentality and peer pressure to override concerns about ethics and the human and environmental effects of our purchasing decisions.

Between Fair Trade Organizations and the No Sweat campaigns, you can find a lot of trendy clothes and shoes online.

Blizzards of ads cajole us to find the best deals on the most stuff, on the theory that a good deal on some stuff will allow us to get more stuff overall. People who would normally never darken the doors of a Wal-Mart feel the pressure to buy and give lots (especially to children, teaching them to consume lots as early as possible) within a limited budget. Somehow even with some really good deals on all the stuff we buy, we wind up spending more than we expected to.

Recent alarms about toxic toys have highlighted questions about working conditions as well as product safety. Many parents, especially, are seeking safe and perhaps less commercial alternatives for gifts this year. In response, unions and non-profit agencies are suggesting several ways for consumers to enjoy a guilt-free holiday season.

OXFAM Canada and other international development NGOs have been slowly building the Fair Trade market in this country for decades. But it is Ten Thousand Villages, a non-profit Fair Trade Organization (FTO) founded by American Mennonites in 1946, that has come closest to making fair trade an issue in North America for 'non-ideological' consumers. Ten Thousand Villages has grown to include 160 stores in North America. It is riding a wave. Well, perhaps 'ripple' is a better word, given the size of the capitalist ocean.

Some estimates put the growth sales rate for Fair Trade products at 60 percent per year. Next step, perhaps: a fair trade purchasing policy for Parliament (as there is for the EU Parliament).
Part of their success comes from steady expansion of their product lines. Fair trade has come a long way from when all right-thinking folk would feel the need to buy Nicaraguan coffee in support of the Sandinistas, even when their tastes secretly ran more to tea and hot chocolate.

Browse your local or online Fair Trade retailer. There's no longer a need to choose between your conscience and the look on the recipient's face when they open your present. The clothing segment of the market has grown beyond peasant skirts and hemp caftans, to include items that would look at home in corporate boardrooms (if they ever got there).

Even the lucrative toy market is seeing some penetration by Fair Trade manufacturers. And no, before you ask: we're not talking about 'rustic' wooden trains and rag dolls, but products that compete with the more commercial stuff.

Chinese-made toys hold about 85 percent of the Canadian toy market. With the recent concerns about cheap toys from China (even if most of the decisions about what to put in and on them was made at corporate HQs in the US), toys alone may be on the verge of making a break-through for the Fair Trade movement.

Given that the worldwide 'traditional' toy market (excluding electronic games and such) is valued at $65 billion a year, even a small dent in the market would be a huge boost for FTOs.
Most FTOs deal with suppliers who are essentially self-employed. They produce local crafts from local materials. That doesn't help you much if the grandkids are demanding the latest in trendy gear and you suspect that a nice hand-made pair of sandals won't substitute for the latest running shoes.

Fortunately, the No-Sweat movement (think of it as a subset of the FTOs) has had more than enough of an impact on clothing producers in particular that you can find the right gear.
There's still some debate about the effects of the agreements Global Union Federations have negotiated with companies like Nike, but you and your favourite search engine won't have any trouble finding clothing for young adults that is union-made (a pretty reliable indicator).

Admittedly, stores that sell entirely Fair Trade stock are still few and far between right now. If you live outside a major city (or just want to avoid the crowds), you can find Fair Trade outlets online. See some suggestions below.

Bear in mind that, online or in person, caveat emptor still applies. Canada has no regulations governing company claims to be selling Fair Trade goods. The industry remains largely self-regulating. Buy from a reputable retailer and look for the logos of Transfair Canada and the Fairtrade Labelling Organization International.

Don't be completely turned off if the potential gift you're looking at doesn't bear one of those endorsements. Getting certified as Fair Trade can be expensive for small producers and can take some time. If the retailer is reputable and can explain the lack of approval, go ahead and buy. The (fair) profits from the sale may help bring approval a little closer.

The Canadian Labour Congress produces a handy guide to seat-free shopping, available online. OXFAM can help too. And the Brits, long-time leaders in the Fair Trade movement internationally, have lots of info online.

Give yourself a present this year. Instead of exhaustion and credit card overload, celebrate the season with a bit of smug self-congratulation.

After all, you deserve a little something from yourself for the holidays.

Derek Blackadder is a National Representative with the Canadian Union of Public Employees in Ontario, and Senior Correspondent for LabourStart.org, the international trade union news and campaigns website. He gets very anxious even thinking about Christmas. This year his family are all getting donations to Horizons, an international development NGO he approves of, as holiday presents.

For more information please use the following links and the ones below.


Related addresses:

eMail 1: Derek.Blackadder@sympatico.ca
URL 1: www.horizons.ca/
URL 2: www.ecosherpa.com/green-business/green-christmas-shopping-in-canada/
URL 3: www.cbc.ca/news/background/fair-trade/

1 comment:

Brigett said...

Hi Derek. Purchasing Fair Trade products for Christmas is a great way to show the spirit. Did you know that sports balls (for football, soccer, and more!) are now eco-certified and Fair Trade certified too? Stop by our blog at www.fairtradesports.com to learn more!Brigett McLemore
Blog: http://www.fairtradesports.com
Eco-Certified Fair Trade soccer balls and more!